On Suns, Swimming, and Floating

By Catherine DiMercurio

{Sometimes you have to look at the sun.}

As my children get ready for the next part – for my son, beginning college, living away from home, for my daughter, beginning her junior year, formulating plans for what post-undergrad looks like for her – it is impossible to avoid looking at the sun of it all. Sometimes the shifts in our lives and relationships are small and gradual and we adapt to them almost without noticing the effort, but sometimes the shifts announce themselves brightly; they greedily signal their significance.

beach dawn dusk ocean
Photo by Sebastian Voortman on Pexels.com

Looking back, I see the inevitable trying too hard, the flurries of energy expended in multiple directions, the lack of calm that often characterized my efforts as a parent. I tried to be better than myself for them, tried to shape myself to tasks that shifted at the very moment I thought I know how to accomplish them, or at the very moment I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I tried to unmake the damage of divorce with deluges of emotion, with little proofs of the constancy and consistency of love, with notes, lots of talking, and sleepless nights full of worry, with hugs, cookies, gifts, lectures, as many meals together as we could, everything I could think of. I tried to pick up jagged shards of broken hearts, and puzzle the pieces back together. I tried to make everything count. I gave up sometimes, angry, resentful, tired, lost. I tried to relax, tried to not be cannibalized by guilt when I got things wrong, when either child was obviously hurting or struggling. I wanted more beach time and forests for us. More breakfasts, more stories, more magic – always. More pasta, too, and road trips fueled by potato chips and coffee. More holding hands. More laughter. More books, more lake-smoothed stones, more stars, moons, more wishes.

Sometimes I think of the curly brackets, or braces, these: {}, and I think being a parent is somehow like them, full of mysterious and elegant purpose, an effort to order, shape, contain the infinite nature of love. I admit, I don’t really know what they mean, for math, or language, and I don’t know what I mean, for my children, but I know that by some cosmic calculus, they have made me who I am, and that I am for them, always. Please know that, wherever you are. I am for you, always.

For me, now, I do what any mammal does when their young grow hearty and capable and ready. Send them off, let them go, and then I return to the den. After that, who knows. The nature shows seem to leave that part out, the camera follows the juveniles as they seek out new lives, not the lumbering mother bear or the lioness, or fox, or hare.

This is like any other part of parenting. You know you will be challenged and changed, but you don’t always know in what ways and you can’t quite predict how you’re going to feel about it.

I’m always amazed at our ability as parents to keep at it even once we realize that everything we do is focused on preparing our children to leave us. We practice goodbye, early, often. The first day of preschool is marked indelibly upon my heart and brain, the exact shape of the moment when I hugged each child, the way their arms felt around my neck. I knelt on the sidewalk. My daughter received and returned my embrace, tight, quick, and then she squirmed away to wait in line in front of the door. My son lingered, waiting, uncertain. He was always a naturally curious child who loved to learn but this sudden separation seemed unexpected and a bit unnecessary to him.

The separation that begins tomorrow is less unexpected, and is clearly a next step that he is more than prepared for. Our mutual sometimes-sadness is rooted quite simply in knowing we will miss each other, and in comprehending that his childhood has ebbed. Is it okay to regard this as a kind of grief for an ending, even though it is surrounded by the joy and excitement about what comes next? And we are, joyful and excited. For both of us, there is new, there is growth and learning, there is a fresh independence, and discovery.

I think of all the energy and urgency I put into parenting and I wonder what becomes of it, and does it turn inward or toward other relationships, or is it so unique to parenting that it exists for itself only. I’m sure it is different for everyone. I know I am not suddenly done parenting, but it is necessarily time to float instead of swim. I am curious what the coming weeks will reveal, if that will feel like a natural movement or a forced one. Will it seem as unfamiliar and urgent as learning to swim felt?

I wrote a while ago about trying to replace anxiety with curiosity and I do try to remind myself of this. A lot of my writing about this transition is a part of that effort, a way to pay attention to what our hearts and brains do during changes like this, a way to wonder and perceive. There is not dread here, only a surplus of emotion.

But surpluses do have a way of overwhelming us sometimes and I have found that this is one of the ways I teach myself about how to manage them. I think that is what we are called to do, perpetually, is to continue to teach ourselves how to manage the multiplicity of evolutions we experience in our lives. We learn, we lean on each other. We celebrate the joys and let ourselves feel the griefs and make ourselves and each other whole through all of it, through the celebration and tears and puzzling the pieces together and swimming and floating and leaning.

Love, Cath

 

 

 

On the Dwindled Familiar

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you are out of step and looking for something familiar within yourself.

Lately and often, I’ve been considering the impact of erosion, the way events and transitions and life can lead to a dwindling of the sense of familiarity between ourselves and the world around us, and/or between ourselves and ourselves.

For most people in this chaotic, viral year, familiar routines and habits have evaporated. In the midst of it, as I’ve been writing about here, I’ve moved to a new home, and my son is preparing to leave for college, where he’ll join my daughter on campus, and I’ve been trying to acclimate to it all.

A couple of days ago, my son and I visited my daughter. She’s moved back in with her housemates and is also awaiting the new school year. The three of us walked through the collection of small buildings that form the dorm complex where my son will live. We drove to the river, watched the swans prune, the ducks play, and the geese eat and eat. After ordering some takeout bibimbop, we sat on my daughter’s porch, quietly devouring our spicy rice and vegetables and tofu. We talked about ways to be safe.

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Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 on Pexels.com

I sat on the porch swing, close to my daughter and I held her hand, as if she were my five-year-old once more, and I missed her suddenly and intensely now that we were together again. I listened to the two of them talk to one another about their class schedules, their futures.

It is not that I’ve been oblivious to how much of their life now unfolds without me in it on a regular basis, but sometimes it just hits you.

This part is over. Has been over, actually.

I was slow to realize.

With my daughter, even though she’s beginning her junior year and talking about what faraway things come next for her after she graduates, it still almost felt like I had time for everyday moments. Even though, despite a brief pandemic-induced period where she moved back home, I haven’t lived with her for some time. Maybe it is because my son is about to leave too that the truth of it all is clarifying for me. Whatever privileged status I may hold in their lives as their mother will not necessarily translate into daily relevance.

At home, at this home-in-the-making, I walk through the house in the morning, letting the dog out, making the coffee, making the bed, and none of it has quite coalesced as familiar. Sometimes, I only feel as at home here as I would in any place where I like the décor. Those books. That pottery vase. The pink tile in the bathroom. The way the light moves through the house throughout the day is pleasing. And we have begun building memories here, a birthday, morning coffee on the back porch, a wide sweep of conversation. Tears and laughter, sleep and restlessness. Meals prepared and eaten together. At the same time, the notion of familiarity can feel elusive.

I am only slowly realizing that familiar does not always have to do with what the things I thought it did – time, memory, history, objects.

I have new possessions and old ones here in this new place, but the old things have the same hum as the new, though I know them better. Possibly I’m confusing the notion of familiarity with something else.

And then suddenly sometimes it all shifts into place with a soft sigh. I am not always half a step off from the general flow of things, but with all the churn and shove of these transitions, I can be a beat behind. I’m noticing too that people notice what I haven’t, like how long I pause sometimes before I’m able to catch up. I tried explaining this recently to my son but I don’t think I was able to make much sense of it.

At times, I feel at once melancholy and joyous, as if both of these are simultaneously my natural states, and I am perpetually tugged in one direction or the other, and the unease I feel within my own skin sometimes is a side effect of the journey from one state to the other.

This is all to say that sometimes our world and the miniscule and the enormous upheavals therein cause us to feel unfamiliar to ourselves, as we try to respond to all the things we need to. Sometimes we try and fail. Sometimes we try and are slow to realize that we aren’t failing. We are in a state of trying. We are earnest. We are tugged between versions of ourselves. We are tugged in and out of the flow that everyone else seems to keep pace with.

Perhaps the most centering power, the thing that consistently brings me back to myself, is the act of looking into the eyes of those people I love, and being recognized. The warm brown eyes of my son, kind and astute, grounded and curious. My daughter’s sea gaze, all grey and green, passion and power and depth. The blue sky eyes of my love, a soar of melody and truth, wisdom and sweetness.

We are all moving through our own states, and sometimes we are trying to catch up to ourselves and to each other and to the world. We owe ourselves and each other recognition and respect, patience and compassion.

Love, Cath

On Thresholds, Love, and Language

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we halt on a threshold and consider how words fail us.

As February inches to a halt in its slow, frozen way, and we in the Midwest stand here on the almost-verge of spring, I’m thinking of thresholds. Thresholds as in, the space existing after one thing and before another, and as in limits.

One of my earliest memories is of standing on the curb at the door of the school bus that was to take me to kindergarten. I remember the black rubber tread on the steps leading up and in, and little else. I remember feeling frozen. Years later, I asked my mother why I wouldn’t get on the bus. She said I told her it was too loud. A lot of the world feels that way, still. The overall sensory impact of a chaotic world is like a static-y radio turned up too loud. Outside that kindergarten bus, I imagine it wasn’t just the noise as overwhelming decibel level, but the clanging chaos of social unknowns, represented by overlapping voices, the chatter of classmates that I did not yet know, conversations in-progress, which I couldn’t access. My sisters were my friends, but they were in first and second grade.

I remember too the safe quiet bubble of my mother’s car as she drove me to school. I think she drove me for the first week, maybe longer. (The first time I managed to actually ride the bus was terrifying and I left my gym shoes on the bus and when everyone else was putting sneakers in cubbies against the wall, I was crying because I’d forgotten mine.) But in the car, there was reprieve. It was a hushed in-between place, and my mother was there, and it felt like everything was okay, at least for that little while, from house to school.

My son and I recently took an evening to visit my daughter at college. On the way home, he talked about how much he loved being in the car, because he did not have to be doing anything. He allowed himself to relax, chat, zone out, and not have to be productive. For him it was a reprieve from homework, student council emails, scholarship applications. Often, as I’m commuting 30 minutes or so to work, I similarly have the feeling of not wanting to get there yet. I can give myself credit for being a responsible adult going to work, but I do not yet have to face responsibilities and ingest their corresponding stresses.

I think of how much our lives create webs of responsibility and how there are very few places where we are legitimately de-obligated from fulfilling them.

Reflecting on that frozen moment when stepping onto the bus seemed equivalent to stepping off a cliff, I consider how words are such inadequate tools for conveying ideas related to feeling. We use collections of words as convenient but undersized vessels for ideas that don’t fit into them. We say terror or panic but what we mean involves the loss of a safe world, a known version of ourselves as its primary inhabitant, and the abyss of a new universe where there is no familiar anything, anyone. We try to contain with words emotions too big for our bodies, almost too big for our hearts to feel, let alone express.

I think of how else language fails us. I think of what mothering me would have been like, and though I am a mother I still can’t imagine it. I remember each of my own children’s first days – of preschool, kindergarten, high school. Dropping my daughter off at college. I imagine what it’ll be like, in a matter of months, to leave my son in his dorm room. How does one say, at such points of disembarking, I love you but I have to go this way. You have to go that way. Sometimes the simultaneous joy and pain of loving leaves us frozen.

That words never fail to fail us is especially true of love, all of our loves. We should have more words for it, better ones. There is no concise way to say I [love-that-holds-within-it-comprehension-of-all-my-maternal-shortcomings] you. No way to truly capture the sorrow of loss that grows like a long blade of grass alongside the child’s every accomplishment as witnessed from the parent’s perspective. The way loving means I am teaching you to leave me, to be you, to belong to yourself. Though you belong with me, now, you don’t belong to me. 

macro photography of droplet on green leaf during daytime
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Other ways of loving are similarly challenged by vernacular limitations. There is no easy way to express I [love-that-arrives-as-a-surprise-after-long-and-difficult-journeying] you. No way to really say that we simultaneously want to protect it as if it is vulnerable moss at the edge of a forest path in danger of being crushed by the heavy footfall of experience, and the way we lean against it as if it is the sturdiest oak in the woods.

I wonder, if we did have language for such things, would it be easier? If there were precise words for the types of love we wanted to express, would we use them more freely? Or, would our threshold for the feelings such words encapsulate still be in danger of being breached, and would we instead reach for softer words, blurry words, in order to contain? Perhaps language has limits for a reason. Perhaps as a species we have created the language we can safely wield, and nothing more.

I think, too, of those places of reprieve, and how they involve solitude sometimes, and quiet, supportive companionship at others. It might be in the car, in bed, over coffee. It might be that we don’t recognize these spaces as thresholds, as places in-between where we are allowed not to go this way or that way, not to have to deal with this responsibility, or that one. Where we don’t have to consider our threshold for what our hearts can express.

Writing this, my mind hops back to a couple of years ago when I began this blog and how the analogy of the road trip began it all, and how many times I have returned to it in various manners. Wherever you are journeying today, I hope you find that bubble of calm and quiet, when you are neither here nor there.

Love, Cath

Watercolor Pears and Other Journeys

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we let love remind us we’re okay.

As I hug my daughter, I want to steal back the moments I let go of maybe too easily. I tried to cherish everything I could. But when our children are ready to leave, our becoming ready to let them go gets messy. We let anger, or distance grow, because there is an illusion that it makes the leaving easier. It makes readiness appear to be something finished and beautiful, a little masterpiece of growth, and in a way, it is. But it is also green and new, for us as parents and for them as children.

My daughter left for college a year and a half ago. This weekend, visiting, I wondered, how is it that you do not live in my house anymore. How is it that we so often misunderstand and misuse time, and each other, even when we are telling ourselves different truths. I am not taking this for granted. I appreciate this moment, and that one. The easy ones, the tough ones, the laughter and tedium in between. The fact is, it isn’t possible to appreciate them all, not in the moment. But, possibly, I don’t comprehend the universes contained in each moment. The way that when mother and daughter yelled across the threshold of her pre-slammed door, the instant was a multitude, was everything that brought us there, was everything it would launch us into.

All of what I understand about living and loving could fit in a thimble. If I were a fruit fly, I would swim in it like a swan at sunrise.

At the same time maybe I knew more than I thought I did, and I let go enough and held on enough, and it is only now, with the absence of my daughter in my home a daily reminder of how life tumbles forward, that I feel as though I want to sweep it all back into my embrace for just another minute, every breath we breathed under the same roof. At the same time, it’s now, and she’s doing okay, more than okay.

The dog has found a spot near my feet. Sometimes I think he understands living and loving better than anyone, but maybe he has never quite adjusted to my daughter leaving. He attached himself differently to my son next. But soon, my son will also be gone and my dog will look at me and not understand why love has come to this. Why I, with all my insufficiencies, am the one he is left with. He will think of his girl and his boy and sigh and wish for them every day and I will come home from work and he will resign himself to loving me as best as he can. Possibly, though, he simply loves me.

I think of how many ways there are to love and how each one of them tries to break our hearts even as it expands them. Because it expands them.

I think too of the love we find – after time and heartbreak have suggested, perhaps urged, maybe you’ve had enough. I think of the way I ran toward it, us, anyway. How we sat over coffee cups, hearing each other’s voices for the first time, not really knowing what to expect of self, other, this. How learning the shape of this is a gift.

Years ago, I took a watercolor class. I learned a little, most of which I’ve forgotten. The instructor mentioned that I’d benefit from a drawing class, advice I never took. But I learned that I loved this medium, and that it calms me even if my work is simplistic and flawed, and to call it amateurish would be a compliment.

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I love seeing pencil sketch lines beneath pale washes, the way the layers build and you can see both the cumulative effect and the process at the same time. It’s like witnessing journey and arrival in the same moment, even if the arrival is not at the intended destination. No, that is not the way I thought this painting of a pear would turn out. But, still. The beautiful thing is, both “good” and “bad” paintings can be witnessed and appreciated in this same way.

How luxurious it is to appreciate and be appreciated not because we’ve made it to an expected or anticipated destination, but simply as journeyers who have arrived, here, now. In this multitude of a moment. And we’re okay. More than okay.

How new and beautiful it can be to love (ourselves) this way.

Love, Cath

 

On Peaches, Hiccups, and Fish, or Finding Talismans

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we work so hard trying to get it all right, but it already is alright.

Yesterday opened with a rejection that sounded at first like an acceptance, like a win, a big one. And also, a second rejection. I don’t usually get two literary journal rejections back-to-back on a Monday morning, with one of them needing to be re-read four times just to make sure. As the day unfolded, my Monday also gifted me with two “hiccups,” which involved each child texting me at work – simultaneously – with different issues that needed some urgent and ongoing consideration.

I write a lot about transitions here. I felt as though, at the end of August, I was properly girding myself for the emotions of the next transition. Moving my daughter into a room in a house she’d be sharing with several other students, her first non-dorm college living experience. Moving into my son’s senior year, beginning with the last orchestra camp and the last first day of high school.

I’ve reminded myself that at this point, life is not calm vs. storm, but really just water. A living, breathing ocean with quiet waves and ravenous storms and everything in between. It is characterized by constant movement. And with this insight I had prepared myself for a new season of shift and change, ebb and flow.

Yet I wonder sometimes, what do fish notice, and how does a storm feel deep below the waves? Is it only churn and chop near the surface?

blue discus fish
Photo by Lone Jensen on Pexels.com

On Sunday I blanched peaches in advance of jam-making. I was thinking about the particular and curious satisfaction of September’s liminality, that glorious, tumultuous in-between summer and fall place, a place where little scraps of peace, that feel at once like summer and fall, fall into place.

I stood at the sink gently pushing away the skin from the blushing fruit beneath my thumbs, and I found cherished calm there. I thought, maybe Love does that, loving and being loved. Maybe it makes it easier to find those quiet depths even when the rest of the world is topsy-turvy, even when the children are molding themselves to the shape of new expectations, and even when an avalanche of new transitions and uncertainty waits up ahead for me as well.

I think, I want to remember this, I want to remember the feeling.

I wanted Sunday’s interlude with peaches to be more than a lovely distraction. I wanted the memory of calm to be accessible later, to protect me from the seemingly omnipresent protective anxiety about my children I wear like a talisman.

I need a talisman to protect me from my talisman.

I wear worry like a tattooed eye warding off evil. I fret about catastrophe I hope to keep at bay by paying attention, somehow, to everything that might go wrong, large and small, money, the future, my impending move, how my view of myself will necessarily morph once I am no longer mothering in the same way.

I can imagine it all, and I can’t.

Though it may be something of an illusion, I think that if I spend time worrying about things now, I might be able to shape myself to change and new with some alacrity, if I’m paying attention in all the right ways to all the right things.

As my Monday progressed, post-lunchtime hiccups, I did my best to troubleshoot while staying focused at work; to assess and reassess once home; to weigh pros and cons; to manage the easier hiccup and consider and second guess the other, which was really quite a bit more than a hiccup; and to try and bury the popped-balloon anguish instilled by the rejection that opened with we’d like to congratulate instead of unfortunately. I tried to pay attention to all the right things in all the right ways.

At one point, my son noted, you’re handling this all really well. Though it was a wonderful compliment, it was also impossible for me not to see this observation in contrast to the immediate post-divorce years, when all the juggling and figuring out and managing felt crushing, and I maybe did not handle it all really well, maybe not at all, surely not often enough.

And enough. Enough. That word rises to the surface again and again and it isn’t a gentle rising to the surface like a little bubble rises. It’s a thrust generated by a seismic event on the ocean floor that disturbs the calm in the depths, causes destruction at the surface.

Enough is one of the cruelest words in the lexicon of identity because it is both quake and seismograph.

But, my evening progressed. I worked. I worked with my Love on tasks that wanted doing. I shaped myself to a purpose with recognizable dimensions and did it alongside someone I would pretty much do anything alongside of. I came home, put the final touches on whatever managing of hiccups/not-hiccups I could. I still felt the chop and churn of enoughness and not-enoughness. I didn’t remember what I wanted to about the peaches. Still, it was quite impossible to not feel loved. It was impossible to resist the perpetual buoy of it all, and I don’t really know anything that serves as greater protection against evil than that.

Love, Cath

On the Way We Move Through the World

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the way we see ourselves helps, sometimes it hurts.

When I found out I was pregnant with my first-born, my daughter, I developed a vision of myself, of the way I would move through my pregnancy. I imagined all that good, earthy, powerful woman-hood stuff and wanted to be infused with a grace and a centeredness that I hadn’t possessed before. I wanted to be transformed. Of course, I was transformed, but not the way I imagined. As my body changed, I grew to be clumsier and more awkward than ever. As much as I wanted to bond with my unborn infant, I often felt attacked by an unknown entity that was devouring me, making me feel fatigued, nauseous. I usually did not feel beautiful and earthy. Looking back, everything I felt was entirely normal. Of course all my experiences felt foreign and confusing; I’d never been pregnant before. And in all the ungainly heft of it, there were moments, hours that sometimes stretched into days, where I did feel somewhat miraculous. And the first time I felt a little nudge from my kiddo, elbow or foot, I’m not sure which, I did feel a crazy inexplicable bond begin to grow. I could call this entity in me a person, but a living creature gestating inside of you doesn’t always feel like a future someone in your life the first time around. So the bond I’m speaking of isn’t like the bond you feel with a human walking around outside your body. When my daughter was born and was placed in my arms, that which had long been other but part of me became something else. Her. Whole. I remember my first thought: Oh! If I had only known it was you. . . .

She was a universe unto herself. One that would depend on me and her father for everything. Of course, the entire time that she was incubating in me, I was developing a range of ideas about what kind of mother I would be. And I felt just as ungainly and confused learning how to parent as I did learning how to be pregnant. I didn’t have any sort of instinctual gift. I questioned every single instinct I did have. I never gained a sustained confidence in my abilities as a caregiver, moral instructor, spiritual advisor, shaper of another human’s psyche. And it didn’t become any clearer once my son was born. The territory shifted. There were two of them. And any ideas I had of myself as a mother once again were turned on their head, because this other little person needed a different me than the first one did in many ways. Once again my expectations of how I would walk through motherhood, of how to parent this little brood, butted up against the realities of doing the job. To be honest, they still do. Everything changes, all the time, and every skill you possess as a person and parent is called upon as your children change and as the world changes and as their world changes and you cannot keep up, not ever, but you simply have to keep trying to make sense of it. I am still not the mother I imagined I would be. To be honest, I’m still not the mother I hoped I’d be. She’s still out there, a version of me who will know and say and do the right things at the right time, and sometimes she and I inhabit the same space and we do okay.

ballet ballet shoes blur close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Our ideas about who we are and who we want to be are perpetually shifting as the terrain shifts beneath our feet, as people exit our lives, or enter. As we gain new experiences. As we leave pasts behind and enter new spaces. We envision ourselves in a certain, idealized way. In every vision I’ve had of how I want to be, how I expected to exist in the world, I always see this version of myself as graceful. I’ve always wanted to possess physical grace. As a child I desperately wanted to take ballet lessons. One Halloween I got to dress up like a ballerina and I was ecstatic. Being an actual ballerina was not in the cards, but that idea of confidence, poise, grace – it stayed with me, and I always wondered how it would have changed me. Would what seems like natural clumsiness have evaporated in a ballet studio? Would I be less likely to run into furniture, trip on sidewalk cracks, stub toes, tumble into garden mishaps that involve crucifixion via rose thorns through my palm?

I’ve imagined what it might look like to walk through my life with poise and confidence. I still envision myself in a manner I haven’t inhabited. I do not feel possessed by a sense of calm, by accumulated wisdom, by a carefully curated and fully-realized perspective, as I had hoped to be at this point in my life. Not every day. Not most moments. But sometimes. Sometimes we inhabit the same space, she and I, and we do okay.

I don’t know if it is good or bad, to have this vision of how we’d like to be. Are we setting ourselves up for failure? Or have we given ourselves realistic ideas of self to aim for? I guess it depends on our vision. Maybe grace and wisdom are out of reach most days, but who knows?

Love, Cath

Heart-Sore and Healing: On Watching Your Children Fly

By Catherine DiMercurio

Suddenly I want to bake a pie full of peaches and sugar because my heart is sore, sore in the steady sharp low hum manner of a hangnail or a paper cut straight through the meat of your thumb pad. Sore, because I know home is not the same anymore, but for all the right reasons. Right, because it was time, time for her to move to the next part, not far in miles but autonomy isn’t measured that way. Just college, not really moving out but still, away and beyond into all the next things. And here, at home, the not knowing, what you ate for breakfast, and how is that book you are reading, and did you make it home okay. And okay, it’s not just her, because he now too wears his new independence so casually, as if it is just a piece of paper that says he can drive without me, the real license hasn’t even arrived in the mail yet. But off he goes, and did you make it there okay? Please be okay, and okay, it’s more than a hangnail or a paper cut sometimes.

Do you know what it costs? We talk about raising children and I think of the way bread dough expands to fill the available space and more. It’s only air, pulling off that miracle, the same as the breath in our lungs. And by the way, it costs everything. It costs everything to have every first be one step closer to all the goodbyes, it costs your whole heart and more.

This is what we signed up for, and we knew it would be tough, but you never know all the ways it will hurt, just like we never know all the ways it expands us. I would do it all over again because I know. I would because I know her, I know him, but if we didn’t, if someone painted us a picture and depicted exactly how much it would hurt us and exactly how much it would lift us, would we believe it? Would we believe a heart could survive that much expansion and contraction, heaving and sundering and cracking like an overfilled pie crust broken apart by something as slight and brutal as steam?

I will bake the pie after I buy a peck of overripe peaches from the farmer’s market, a little bruised and bursting through their own skins.

round orange fruits
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

I don’t recommend condensing into the space of a few days the dropping off of one child at college, and the testing and licensing of the other for driving. There is so much good in it, I know that. They are strong and full of everything they need to be where they are. I can take little credit for this. I see how they were born with the spirit and the strength, always ready for the next part, even the times when they didn’t know they were. Maybe I was too. Maybe I’m ready for the next part too, even when I don’t know I am. Even when the heart is bruised and sore, growing and bursting and breaking. How many times do we mend ourselves, with something as slight and brutal as breath?

Labors of Love

By Catherine DiMercurio

I’ve been away for a bit, working on novel revisions and searching for places to submit my manuscript. The phrase “labor of love” comes to mind, and “labor” surfaces for me in the context of both birthing and work. Writers often speak of their work in this way, as if the piece they have written is offspring, a living, breathing thing that they have given birth and breath to, nurtured from a tiny kernel of an idea into maturity. It is easy to do, even as a parent of an actual living, breathing thing that I have nurtured from a tiny kernel of an idea (“let’s have a baby!”) into maturity, maturity as in, she has turned eighteen and is about to graduate from high school, about to leave this home and make a new one. These various notions of labor, and the fruit it bears, are joined right now in my mind.

Confluence and Connotation

Because of this intertwining, the coming together of my emotions about my daughter graduating at the same time I was nurturing into maturity the novel, early drafts of this post centered on the notion of confluence. I was specifically thinking about the way emotionally weighted or significant things seem to happen at the same time in our lives. I considered the way sorrows pool, floods of grief crash together, or odd jumbles of joy seem to happen all at once and you wonder when is it going to all fall apart because life has taught you that it often does. But something about this felt off to me and I spent some time thinking about “confluence.” Though it originally entered into my brain in terms of the way things come together, I hadn’t really been thinking of the geographic imagery and understanding of the word. The most common usage focuses on the flowing together of two or more bodies of water at a certain point to form a single channel. I realized I had the right word but had originally latched on to the wrong connotation.

So now I am thinking about the power of confluence, the force of these two strong rivers flowing together. Sometimes you can see it happening, this coming together of powerful things in your life, but you don’t know what to do about it. You sense the importance but haven’t yet found a way to inhabit it. I see myself with my hand outstretched. I’m reaching for the next part, my next part (in terms of writing and also, whatever else life becomes after my home no longer includes my children living in it). At the same time, I’m holding on ferociously to those two children, wanting to keep them with me, safe and sound (the illusion being that I have the power to protect them), and wanting also to be strong enough to open my arms and let them go. And they, too, are both holding on and reaching forward. I wonder sometimes if the best thing to do is enter the current and see where it takes me, because I can’t yet see how I can harness the power of the emotions that this transition, this confluence, is churning up, and I also feel that I can’t hold on at the shore much longer, the current is already sweeping us up in these changes and inevitably we will be swept up and away and forward.

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Photo by NMQ on Pexels.com

I wonder, too, how do I keep myself as a safe place on the shore when they need refuge from the churn of their own lives as they get older? How do I maintain that space and at the same time see where life takes me?

Mistake Making

In a way, this post is about mistakes and false starts, as I try to harness language, sometimes the wrong language, sometimes the right language in the wrong way, to convey the bewildering array of emotions and thoughts that gather around me and inhabit me in the midst of this transition. Metaphor feels like the only tool to make sense of it all but it merely hints at the real, attempts to show with linguistic equations how the heart and mind heave and ache and reach in currents of memories, fears, joys, wishes.

But life is mistakes and false starts. It is memory and wish, it’s reaching back and vaulting forward, storm and sanctuary, river and shore, and maybe all I’m trying to do here is tell my daughter as she graduates and prepares for the next phase in her life, that life will be this way. Life might be a clear day after the rain or it might be the rain but no matter what it is, no matter what metaphors are used to make sense of it, the safe place I’ve built for her is always there, in every memory made together, every penny-tossed fountain wish she and I have cast, side by side. We’ve built it already and it isn’t going anywhere.

Wishing you safety in storms, laughter in rain, and the wisdom to appreciate the sun on your face every time the clouds part.

Love, Cath

 

On Mothering and Metabolism

By Catherine DiMercurio

I circled around this blank page for a while, looking for a place to land. The week percolated with activity and emotion and I found myself trying to keep up and keep catching my breath. It was like tripping and falling. There’s a slow motion moment where it feels like you should be able to stop the tumbling but the momentum already has a grip.

This week began (or last week ended) with Mother’s Day. I spent a quiet morning with my children, then traveled an hour and a half north to visit with my mother, father, and a handful of sisters.

In the days that followed, I dealt with the irritation of a broken dryer and the frustration that comes with rearranging my work schedule to accommodate a repair, which, incidentally remains incomplete. The dryer is 19 years old. Parts were ordered. And now we wait.

That night, my daughter had an away soccer game. It was one of the only games this season that I did not attend. Luckily her father was there, because my daughter had a severe allergic reaction that landed her in the emergency room. I met them at the urgent care clinic where he had taken her, and where she passed out, and where EMS was arriving. She was only out for a moment, and they were assessing her vitals. Everything was stabilizing, the two doses of Benadryl—one administered by her father and one, intravenously, by the EMT—had taken care of her hives, and her throat was no longer feeling tight. She did not need epinephrine. At the hospital, we were joined by her boyfriend and his mother. We circled my daughter’s bed, waiting for her to be seen. After about 3 hours, the attending physician reviewed her chart and told us to follow up with her doctor and an allergist. (Obviously!) There were no answers, which I didn’t really expect. Many things could have triggered the hives. The passing out, within the realm of everything that was happening to her body, was not a concern to the attending, but certainly something to keep an eye on. We returned home, exhausted and perplexed.

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Photo by Pok Rie on Pexels.com

This day tumbled into the next—a promotion at work, a vet visit, prom again (my daughter and her boyfriend had already attended her school’s prom, and now they were off to his), and my son preparing for his first job interview. His sixteenth birthday is next week.

Exhausted and perplexed, I suppose, are the emotions that linger after this week of highs and lows, some of which I found I could not yet wrap words around, as they are still percolating in their raw and formless way, waiting for me. I find myself struggling to take it all in and comprehend it. I’ve been using the word “metabolize” frequently lately in this context, feeling as though life is often comprised of ingesting this array of experience and emotion. Metabolizing it all consists of gleaning what wisdom and knowledge I can, and crying or laughing the rest of it away, to make room for the next round. This week has been full of lessons. I became aware, for instance, that learning what it means to let other people in to the lives of my children is not something that happens all by itself, quietly, in the background. It is something I became aware of as the week unfolded and was at times overwhelming, though inherently and wonderfully positive. Good things take time to be metabolized too, not just the tough stuff. I chew on things. I process slowly. I think a lot, some say overthink, but it’s more that I’m turning it all over in my mind, looking at all the subtle contours, thinking about it all the same way lake water and sediment erode and soften beach glass or stone.

I’m still making sense of things this week, so I’m going to do something different right now and leave you with this, a poem I drafted not too long ago while I was getting my MFA, and which I’ve pulled out recently to reexamine and revise. I’ll be taking a couple of weeks off after this post. I’m in the middle of novel revisions again, trying to polish and tighten in time to submit, by the end of the month, to a contest for “older published writers of fiction.” I hope you enjoy the poem. It’s about mothering, which seems appropriate in the context of this week and this post.

Mine

The moon tugs oceans of grief.

In the wet sand in-between place, I can begin to see what’s mine.

What isn’t.

In between history and anguish, my failures imprint themselves.

When I say this is my daughter,

What I mean is that she is the one who tore through me once.

But to use the possessive to describe this feral female, all rage and rangy and tangled but who still lopes near, as if to the porch for a saucer of milk and a scratch, well, that doesn’t make her mine.

When I say this is my son,

All I mean is that he is the one who slipped almost quietly into this world, from my world, quietly once in the early morning, too early, shallow breathing fish out of water boy.

But to use the possessive when describing this wild hidden one who stays close but not too close, like a secret thing whisper-peering out from behind a red milk crate left out back by the strawberry patch, well, that doesn’t make him mine.

Watching these two brooding ones ruminate on the way things broke, I don’t think they use the possessive either. I’m not theirs. I’m it.

The one who saw the fissures in the world and couldn’t stitch and mend fast enough or in the right places

Or the gaps were too big

Or the stuffing shook loose anyway.

Still I made sure there were porch and milk and crate and strawberries.

Still I broke apart

Still I found the feral and the fierce and the stillness.

Still I grasped us back to safety.

Nothing makes them mine.

But when they trot in through the back door I always leave open

They snuggle me in a big heap on the floor and we get to belong to each other at least

for a moment, a breath, and one more.

Please.

 

Love, Cath

Coming of Age: The Crisis vs. The Chrysalis

By Catherine DiMercurio

Who doesn’t love a good coming-of-age story? What if it’s your own, part two? What does it mean to be coming of age in middle age?

We all have a favorite story about a young person’s journey from adolescence into adulthood, from innocence to experience. In some stories, this time frame is condensed and the author focuses more on a coming-of-age experience, an episode, rather than a full transition from childhood to adulthood. The progenitor of the modern coming-of-age novel is the European bildungsroman, a novel of development or formation. The classic bildungsroman, such as Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark (1915), or W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915), typically takes this longer view. More modern coming-of-age stories, including J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999), several of John Green’s novels, or the 2007 screenplay Juno by Diablo Cody, frequently examine a shorter time frame within the protagonist’s life. (Incidentally, my favorites from this list would be Lawrence, Cather, Salinger, and Cody—and there are so many more examples!)

I’m perpetually drawn to these types of novels (and films), and what I’ve noticed for a while are the parallels between coming-of-age stories and life in one’s 40s. The novel manuscript I’m currently revising was originally conceived as a mother-daughter story in which I wanted to explore this idea that we go through a second coming of age at this time in our lives, and that parenting teens while going through our own new evolution is a challenge not for the timid. While the novel itself metamorphosized into something else, the original idea has stayed with me. It has fluttered about several recent conversations I’ve had and is demanding to be seen and considered in more detail. I will certainly do that with more deliberateness in a new piece of fiction, but I wanted to give it a nod here as well.

Roles, Expectations, Responses

Like the characters in the works noted above, many of us in our 40s and 50s have the sense that we are outgrowing this current iteration of ourselves. Certainly our roles are shifting. Though the focus of our parenting has always been to nurture independence, the lessons now have a sense of urgency, because soon, those lessons will be put to the test. I find myself at times feeling like I’ve done a pretty good job, but then I suddenly only seeing what I think I left out.

I see my children transforming from youngsters to young adults, surprising me with their maturity one minute, or reminding me, in moments of fear or anxiety about their own journeys, that they are still children. They are still learning how to cope with a new set of rules. They now look like adults and are entering points in their lives where they will be increasingly independent, but at the same time, they are aware that everything is about to change. The safety net they’ve long enjoyed won’t be as readily available. The training wheels, as they say, are coming off.

And I’m in a similar position in terms of change. Parenting will look different after my kids leave home, but regardless of my role as a mother, I, like many people around this age, find myself thinking less about what I’ve achieved, and more about what’s been left undone, and what there might still be time to do. There are empty places within all of us that we thought would be filled by achievements, which, as it happens, maybe failed to materialize. Priorities shift. Gifts and talents we thought we possessed or have been honing haven’t exactly produced the results we expected, and we begin to wonder if we simply aren’t the person we thought we were. Sometimes too, the road we travel has unexpected twists or tragedies in store for us.

Consequently, just as instinctually as a caterpillar stops eating and anchors itself in order to spin a cocoon (if it’s a moth) or molts into a chrysalis (if it’s a butterfly), we start looking around us and looking ahead. What do we have to anchor ourselves to? And do we have time to do the undone things or to pivot and head out in a new direction? Complicating matters, at least for me, is the fact that I thought it would be different, that some of this should have come together by now, that there wouldn’t be so many unknowns at this point.

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The Gruesome Details

And consider this: inside the cocoon or chrysalis, the caterpillar actually digests itself. The process of transformation is a fairly vicious one. And so it is for anyone, regardless of age. While some life transitions are more obvious and easily recognized as a time of drastic evolution, any time in our lives can yield a new sort of coming-of-age experience. It’s never easy, and sometimes it looks as messy from the outside as all the metaphorical digesting of ourselves that’s happening on the inside. We hear the term midlife crisis often enough to make a joke of it, and think of a guy having a difficult time getting older and so he compensates with a sports car.

On a darker and often more realistic note though, we also often witness various forms of self-destruction or self-sabotage (substance abuse, walking out on a job or a marriage, or infidelity). In many ways all these behaviors are yoked to some instinctual desire to transform. But when you can’t see what’s happening, or feel you don’t have ways to cope, or the weight of a lifetime of accumulated expectation is too much, the vicious, painful transformation is itself transformed from a personal journey into one that pulls other people into its wake. This harm to the people around us is what truly makes it a crisis.

It Isn’t a Crisis It’s a Chrysalis

But the transformation on its own does not have to be a crisis, if what we are feeling can be recognized and named, respected and understood. It can instead be simply part of the life cycle, painful but necessary and normal, and beautiful both in process and result. If the permission to transform was a given, and we didn’t have to associate shame or a sense of failure with aging and adapting and responding to where we’ve been and where we’d like to go, fewer midlife crises would happen. We could simply embark on the next chrysalis stage in our lives.

The battle against expectations—self-imposed or otherwise—is equally pervasive at other points in our lives. I thought by now I’d find a job, be married, have kids, have a better job, be happier, etc., etc. I don’t strictly believe in the notion that coming of age happens once or twice in our lives. Circumstances—loss, death, divorce, illness, injuries, unexpectedly becoming a parent—all create a need to evolve, to imagine a new way of being in order to respond to how life has changed. Other developments in life are more decision-based (marriage, planning to be come a parent, seeking out a new job, etc.), and are prompted by a sense of readiness for the next phase. Despite this readiness, the transformation is still a process with its own challenges.

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Power In Perspective

Like most of my posts, this presents simply another way of looking at experiences many of us have. I think there is tremendous power in perspective. Looking at a natural need to transform and regarding it as a positive process instead of a crisis provides opportunity instead of generating anxiety, shame, or despair. If we can prepare ourselves in time, if we can be open to what is happening, we can enter into these processes and transformations with an open heart. We can talk about it with the people in our lives, discuss hopes and fears and expectations, and through honest conversation, mitigate the negative repercussions for the people around us as we move from one state of being to the next. It is natural for some to turn inward and want to handle things privately but if you shut out the people around you, they might not recognize you when you emerge once again.

Enjoy your chrysalis. Love, Cath